Last week I was invited to sing for Marilyn Maye’s 85th birthday celebration at Birdland. I was honored to be asked, and immediately started wracking my brain for just the right song. I decided that at least part of what I presented needed to be personalized with original lyrics, to tell her how much she has inspired me through her teaching, as well as performing.
I began by watching back video from her recent masterclass in which I had sung. I jotted down some of her instructions- “Grab the mic stand,” “Close up your hands,” You’re too young to be singing these lyrics.” I also thought about the recurring themes she talks about- holding out the notes, getting a good breathe and the infamous eyelashes issue. Well… I knew the eyelash thing wouldn’t work, but the rest seemed like good material.
Next I asked a few people for suggestions. My mom instantly sang the beginning of the verse to Silver Bells, “Christmas makes you feel emotional. It may bring parties or thoughts devotional.” A Christmas song? It could work. I took it from there and ran with it. The final piece of the puzzle came when I was working with my vocal coach Laura Bergquist, and she thought it would be fun for an 18 year old to sing “You Make Me Feel So Young” at an 85th birthday celebration. I immediately went home, found the music online, and learned it.
This all took place in just a few days, and before I knew it, it was Monday night and I was headed to Birdland to sing for Marilyn. I had printed out the lyrics to what I was singing and made a birthday card for Marilyn. When teaching, she always wants printed out lyrics on which to write comments, so it seemed like an appropriate birthday card. Plus, I could take it on stage and make sure I got the original lyrics correct and said what I wanted to say.
The whole night was incredible! First, as we approached Birdland, there was a line all the way down the block of people trying to get in. It was sold out, but we headed to the front of the line and were waved in thanks to our reservations. I’ve never seen anything like it on a Monday night Cast Party!
Once inside, it was so much fun to see everybody. Some of my favorites were there, including Ann Hampton Callaway, Jane Monheit, La Tanya Hall and Marissa Mulder. In addition to Broadway and Cabaret people, there were TV/Film personalities there to celebrate with Marilyn. We were seated next to Linda Lavin. I sat back and enjoyed the incredible performances.
Then, Jim Caruso finally called me up. I settled my lyrics on a music stand and told Jim that this one was for Marilyn. Due to the lighting, I could see her sitting at the table directly ahead and smiling. Ted Firth started the intro, and I thought, and said, “Let’s do this!” I began my tribute.
As soon as I sang the first stanza, there were great reactions from the audience. They obviously knew Marilyn as well, if not better, than I, and got the meaning of my carefully constructed lyrics. In fact, I sang the line right before the chorus, “It’s no wonder everyone loves…” and then something incredible happened. As I sang “Marilyn” everyone anticipated where I was going with the song and sang along. Not only sang along, but harmonized and did the traditional echo. What an amazing feeling!
I continued through the second verse, totally inspired as I quoted Marilyn in my song. Next was the transition and my opening statement of “You make me feel so young”. The room burst out in laughter and then something crazy happened. I was so amused and stunned that I lost my place for a minute. But guess what? Since everyone in the audience knew the words, they started singing along and I quickly recovered. I don’t remember having a memory slip like that before, and think I might have been bothered later thinking back, but instead it was just this incredible feeling of being loved and supported, almost as if it was intentional and they were singing their part.
I finished the song adding in a “Happy Birthday to You!” Marilyn jumped to her feet and before I knew it, I was getting a standing ovation. I blew a kiss to the birthday girl and exited stage right. What an awesome experience.
Now, you would think that was the end of the story, but one other thing happened that is definitely worth mentioning. Ann Hampton Callaway got up to improv a song for Marilyn. She asked Marilyn to join her, and the two legends proceeded to sing an improvised blues song about the night. You can imagine my smile grew even larger when they mentioned me. “Tony’s the real thing” and “Tony ain’t no bologna” are two of my favorite lines. It still makes me smile to think about it almost a week later.
Needless to say Marilyn Maye’s 85th birthday celebration at Birdland will be a treasured memory. What an incredible night to pay tribute to an incredible lady, and I am so honored to have had a chance to serenade the birthday girl!